For the longest time, I didn't know which one was Tom and which one was Jerry. I had to look it up.
Any other cartoon, you know. Sylvester could only be Sylvester, Elmer Fudd could only be Elmer Fudd, and Bullwinkle is unmistakable. But with Tom and Jerry, the short-tempered cat and the maniacal mouse, the two animated sadists are interchangeable.
I was reading about Bugs Bunny, see, the hip-rabbit with the catchy catch-phrases, and how he depicted rebellious youth culture and the concept of coolness. Elmer Fudd is the square, straight stolid society, and Bugs is the Jazz artist, the rapper, the motorcycle rider in a leather jacket, the punk. "Got it," I said to myself, and I watched some episodes online and laughed at the wise-cracking, carrot-munching rabbit.
A couple of years back, too, one of my younger brothers rented Rocky and Bullwinkle, thinking it'd be a cool cartoon, and then was completely and totally bored by it. I was in college at the time, though, and I thought the Cold War commentary was hilarious. When asked why I was laughing, I just quoted the villain, the bomb-blowing Boris: "Must capture moose and squirrel."
All this makes it sound like I spend a lot of time watching cartoons or have some great love for cartoons. I don't. I think it's interesting the way the classic cartoon shorts show the same thing over and over and it's still entertaining, and I think it's funny how they take some societal tension and distill it down to extreme violence and sadism. If you don't believe me, though, I don't really care.
So I ended up watching Tom and Jerry, even though I didn't know which one was which. It was Saturday morning and I was eating cereal, waiting for someone, and watching the mouse mutilate the cat. The mouse used an anvil. The mouse used the stairs. The mouse used a set of knives. The cat got creamed and mad and came back bellowing for revenge and then ran head-long into a dog.
Clearly, the mouse is supposed to be the smart one. The one that outwits the bigger, badder opponent by using ingenuity. Just like the Americans in the Revolution, when we hid behind trees and the British wore red and stood in straight lines. Just like Americans in World War II, where the "Yanks" were known for being able to fix anything and come up with creative ways to cream the enemy.
Except, the mouse is the aggressor. Normally, in cartoons, you're supposed to sympathize with the weaker character and then you realize later that the brutish might of the stronger character is not only morally bad, but practically ineffective. But not with Jerry. He's preemptively punishing Tom, perpetually persecuting him, and he loves causing pain.
The little cheese-eater is evil.
And so I wanted to root for Tom, watching him sliced and diced again, watching his tail set on fire, watching him go, "ka-BOOM," but Tom's every waking moment is devoted to anger and revenge. The cat's consumed by violence, and the only thing that's sympathetic about the cat is that he's bad at it.
I was hoping, when I looked up their names, that I could find out which one started it all. Maybe I could untangle the snarl of violence and figure out what the thing was all about. I got the names straightened out, but that's it. As far as I can tell, the violence just goes around and around. It doesn't start anywhere and it doesn't end.
This really frustrates me. I feel like it's a puzzle that would explain something, if only I could figure out what it's about, this maniacal and sadistic dash in circles. But I can't figure out what it's about, unless it's about perpetual, cyclical violence. I've started watching Tom and Jerry a lot and I hate both of them, now that I know who they are. I'm sitting there, eating my cereal in the morning, thinking "Stop, just stop." Screaming, "STOP!"
And then the mouse has a fire cracker, lights the fuse, and grins.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.